Over the last half-decade, Ross Golan has emerged as one of the most compelling songwriters in music today. Along with penning tracks for artists as eclectic as Nicki Minaj, Lady Antebellum, and Michael Bublé, he’s lent his lyrical prowess and melodic finesse to multi-platinum smashes like Selena Gomez’s “Same Old Love” and Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman.” But in the midst of sending dozens of songs to the top of the charts, Golan also brought his limitless artistry to the making of The Wrong Man: a concept album that began as a soul-stirring folk song about a man falsely accused of murder, and soon took on a spectacular life of its own.
A lifelong musician originally from the Chicago area, Golan wrote the title track to The Wrong Man in 2005 and shared the song live while touring behind his debut album. “It was everybody’s favorite song but I hadn’t recorded it, so I decided to create a whole story explaining how this guy into this position,” says Golan. As the story blossomed into ten songs, he began performing a nascent version of the album in living rooms all over Hollywood, to an audience of the entertainment industry’s elite. Through word-of-mouth alone, Golan ended up taking that galvanizing collection of songs to cities as far-flung as Sydney and Nashville, eventually landing an album deal with Interscope Records.
With a stage-musical interpretation of The Wrong Man set to premiere off Broadway this fall—marking the auspicious reunion of Hamilton director Thomas Kail and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire—the concept album arrives as a work of emotionally charged storytelling and extraordinary musicianship. Joining forces with producer Ricky Reed (a Grammy Award nominee known for his work with Lizzo, Leon Bridges, and Maggie Rogers), Golan assembled a band featuring A-list musicians like Mike Elizondo and Trevor Lawrence Jr. (who together form Dr. Dre’s rhythm section), spending 18 months shaping a genre-defying sound that’s meticulously crafted yet undeniably vibrant.
Revealing Golan’s ingenuity as a songwriter, The Wrong Man unfolds with a playwright’s command of tension and mood, instantly transporting each listener to the seedy underbelly of Reno and ultimately to a death-row holding cell. Over the course of 16 sharply detailed tracks, the album spins a tale of sordid romance and cold-blooded murder, desperation and epic tragedy. With his soulful vocals captured live, Golan embodies each character with grace and conviction, a dynamic that Variety praised as “Lin Manuel Miranda-meets-Dashboard Confessional” after witnessing his performance of The Wrong Man at SXSW 2019. And while the album endlessly shifts from gritty folk to guitar-fueled rock to flashes of country and hip-hop, its rich sonic palette never distracts from Golan’s incisive narrative—an element equally informed by his fascination with classic murder ballads and by certain real-life events. “As someone from one of the most corrupt states in the union, I felt very much drawn to telling the story of a man put away for a crime he didn’t commit,” says Golan, noting that four of Illinois last seven governors have wound up in federal prison.
For Golan, The Wrong Man follows a lifetime of obsession with the transcendent power of songwriting. “When you’re a writer, you can go anywhere you want,” he says. “I can be in Los Angeles, but if I’m writing ‘The Wrong Man,’ all of a sudden I’m in Reno. How many people get to play-pretend like that?” Golan first discovered his affinity for lyrical storytelling at age 14, mining inspiration from boundary-warping artists like Tom Waits (“I love how his songs feel like you’re listening to a movie,” he says). While studying music at the University of Southern California, he launched his own record company and ventured into writing for other singers, and later co-founded the acclaimed alt-rock band Glacier Hiking. As he built up his songwriting repertoire, Golan began scoring placements with major artists like Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, and Maroon 5, quickly expanding his output to include #1 hits on both the pop and country charts.
With a deep-rooted passion for empowering his fellow songwriters, Golan has also devoted much of his time and energy to advocacy work, including spearheading the initiative to add songwriters to the Album of the Year category at the Grammy Awards. He also played a key role in rallying the songwriting community in support of the Music Modernization Act—a groundbreaking piece of legislation designed to update copyright law in consideration of new technology like digital streaming. As Golan explains, that effort was sparked by his breakout success in co-producing And the Writer Is… (a podcast featuring Golan’s interviews with such esteemed hitmakers as Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Jack Antonoff, Ryan Tedder, and Justin Tranter). “I started interviewing other writers because I thought it would be good for our community, but then we ended up getting millions of downloads,” he says. “Once that started to happen I thought, ‘Now we’ve got to fight for something,’ and that led to putting together this legislation that changed the whole course of our industry.”
Since first bringing The Wrong Man to homes around the world, Golan has adapted the narrative for an underground musical that won three prizes at the 2014 Ovation Awards (an LA STAGE Alliance event celebrating theatrical excellence). More recently, he teamed up with director John Hwang (a filmmaker who’s worked with Beyoncé and Rihanna) and created a feature-length animated version of The Wrong Man, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. As part of the premiere, Golan joined in a panel including social-justice advocates Noura Jackson and Yusef Salaam (one of the Central Park Five) and Innocence Project founding board member Jason Flom. “We’re working hard to shine a light on all the wrongly convicted people who are in prison indefinitely, without having been given proper DNA testing or the ability to defend themselves,” says Golan of his ongoing partnership with the Innocence Project.
As Golan gears up for the Broadway premiere of The Wrong Man—a bigger, bolder, more elaborately realized version of those living-room shows from years ago—he hopes that the album might offer audiences a more intimate experience of the fable he’s created. “I’ve always identified with the tradition of the troubadour, the songwriters who’d go around playing their music for all the aristocrats,” says Golan. “I did that for years with The Wrong Man, and now I’d love for people to take an hour to shut out the rest of the world, put the album on, and let this story just take them over.”